A Deadly Serious Delight: “Forgive Us, Gustavito!”

Presented by Otherland Theatre Ensemble
Devised and performed by Rebecca Finney, Tushar Mathew, and Lucius Robinson

August 24 and 25, 2023
The Rockwell
255 Elm Street
Somerville, MA
Review by Maegan Bergeron-Clearwood

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — I have seen lots of theater over the past few years, but I still find myself encountering the occasional post-lockdown firsts. In this case, Forgive Us, Gustavito! marked the first production I’ve seen since 2020 that succeeded in being consistently, unabashedly funny – from snorts and chuckles to full-blown guffaws, the three-person ensemble elicited a spectrum of laughs from its audience, myself joyously included, marks itself as the darkest production I’ve seen since 2020.

The devised piece was inspired by a 2017 Washington Post article about the grisly death of hippopotamus, the most famous resident of the now-defunct National Zoo of El Salvador. Speculations as to the cause of Gustavito’s death ran rampant: the original theory, that he had been beaten and stabbed in an act of possible gang-related violence, was replaced by the more mundane (and in some ways more tragic) theory of poor health coupled with inadequate care.

Both theories pointed to the same culprit – human greed – and led to an outpouring of responses from a grief- and guilt-stricken public, one of which, a Tweet, would go on to become the title of Otherland Theatre Ensemble’s play.

Otherland cleverly re-envisions this saga as a noir thriller, and it’s this juxtaposition of entertaining genre tropes and tragic real-world influences that makes the piece so unexpectedly moving. Tushar Mathew plays cigar-smoking, trenchcoat-wearing private detective Emilio Hippo as he embarks on a dangerous journey to track down the creature who murdered his brother.

Rebbecca Finney and Lucius Robinson bring the zoo world to life by embodying its many suspicious inhabitants, most notably a femme fatale spider monkey and a bespectacled, emotionally unstable gorilla.

The play has little in common with its source material beyond the inciting incident and title, instead working within a fictional anthropomorphic world of its own creation. There’s a lot of lore packed into this tiny story (including a surprising amount of zoo animal bureaucracy) which sometimes bogs down the pacing, particularly following a somewhat baffling midpoint plot twist.

Even in its slower moments, Forgive Us Gustavito! is utterly captivating, in large part because it takes itself so seriously. Although rife with animal puns and genre references, the storytelling contains a constant undercurrent of grief and rage. When Emilio flips through unread postcards from Gustavito, detailing memories of adventures with armadillos and a love for peanut butter, it’s patently ridiculous; but when Emilio writes back to a brother who will never read his response, it’s patently heartbreaking. Beneath even the most absurdist scenes, there is a clear existential drive to make sense of senseless cruelty.

Forgive Us, Gustavito! also takes genre seriously, opting to experiment with the tools and tropes of noir, rather than parody them. Melancholic monologues abound, and even with this genre-appropriate emphasis on talk-heavy storytelling, Otherland’s physical devising skills give the piece a dynamic, often eerie and surreal, tone. The actors use onstage lighting devices to manually illuminate faces, props, and isolated corners of their little world, resulting in a stage production that feels more noir than even some film noir.

I came away from last night’s performance reeling from a mixture of confusion, amusement, and profound sadness. There were only two things I wanted more of: a wider variety of animal impersonations from the ensemble’s talented physical performers; and additional opportunities for audiences to enjoy this too-brief run.

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